FREDERICTON – The term ‘recession-proof’ may be an understatement for the region’s universities, which could see Canada’s economic slump translate into an enrolment boom next school year.

While different sectors react differently to economic slowdowns, university enrolment historically spikes during hard economic times.

“The theory in the literature is that as the economy goes south, enrolment in universities seems to increase, particularly interest among men,” said Mireille Duguay, CEO of the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission.

Enrolment at universities in the Maritimes is generally boosted by a strong percentage of students from other parts of Canada, so schools like l’Université de Moncton and Mount Allison University could benefit as economic hard times sweep most of the country and push more students toward the halls of academe.

Ron Byrne, vice-president international and student affairs at Mount A, said early indications show more students have applied at this time compared to past years.

“We, at the moment, are noticing an upward trend in our applications,” said Byrne.

“It is really too early for us to tell if that is going to be a spike, or whether that is going to be a factor of people applying earlier because they know that this is the option they want to choose, because their options may have narrowed.”

Byrne pointed out that it is indeed the economy that may have narrowed the options of high school graduates who might have otherwise ventured straight into the job market.

Byrne said Mount Allison has been sharpening its message and targeting it to more specific audiences based on enrolment data.

“What we know is that we are facing a much more significantly competitive market, we are facing declining demographics for our target age group, so what we are trying to do is get out there,” said Byrne, noting that the university targets about 700 new students each year.

Byrne said efforts are being made to showcase the Sackville campus to more students through traditional ways and a new internet tour.

The Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission released a set of enrolment markers yesterday that will help determine how enrolment in Maritime universities is impacted by various elements like the economy.

The markers go beyond overall enrolment figures, which have traditionally lumped enrolment from all provinces, and countries.

Duguay said the commission will be keeping a keen eye on whether young men flock to the region’s universities as jobs are lost in traditionally male employment sectors.

Duguay said it will be interesting to see whether the slumping economy will begin to level the unbalance that has grown between the number of women and men who attend universities.

“That is one of the elements we will be able to establish some sort of correlation as to how the unemployment rate is affecting enrolment,” said Duguay, noting that the percentage of women in Canadian universities has grown to about 60 per cent over the past 20 years.

Duguay said reports in recent years have shown that booming economies in central and western Canada have drawn escalating numbers of Maritimers, but that growing trend hasn’t applied as strongly to university graduates.

That data showed that prosperity in other parts of the country was creating a drain of skilled workers rather than a so-called brain drain.

“What that was telling us was that if you were a university graduate, the economic growth in Alberta had very little impact on whether you decided to stay or go,” said Duguay.

Charles Cirtwill, of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says the potential influx could distort the efforts of universities in this region to restructure their programs to be more competitive in a shrinking market.

“We are going to see a boom in programs because we have an artificial blip in kids heading to post-secondary (education,) which isn’t going to last very long at all,” he said.

In particular, Cirtwill is concerned that universities could add to infrastructure and programs that will prove to be obsolete in only a few years once the economy regains its momentum.

“My big worry about this is that it is going to mask two things. One is the long-term trend that fewer young men are going into post-secondary (education),” he said.

“The other is that we are going to get a false sense of security around our enrolment in our postsecondary institutions and keep the infrastructure up, and so we’ll see a drop three years from now and all of a sudden they will be crying for more money.”

Cirtwill said the economy could suffer if current labour shortages can’t be addressed even as some sectors are shredding jobs.

“If everyone decides that instead of taking up all of the vacant jobs that were out there when their jobs they had have gone away, they go to school, that is going to make our labour shortage worse, not better,” said Cirtwill.

“That is certainly going to make it a hard time in terms of turning the economy around.”

Cirtwill has heard preliminary reports that universities across the country will see enrolment grow next year.

“I will be surprised if Atlantic universities and community colleges see a bigger increase than everybody else,” said Cirtwill.

“It is possible because we do get a lot of students from outside, but we also get a lot of international students, and they aren’t as likely to travel quite so much.”